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Last week The Scottish Parliament debated the future of ferry services to the Scottish Islands and the future status of Caledonian MacBrayne.

So what are the issues surrounding our ferry services?

The first thing to say is that we are an island nation. Perhaps many of us don’t think about Scotland that way but more islands make up our country than any other EU nation save Greece. The communities on our islands are amongst the most vibrant and creative anywhere in the country and it goes without saying that many of the Scottish Islands have some of the most stunning natural beauty of any location in the World.

Our Islands to the west have been served for generations by Caleonian MacBrayne. A much loved institution but not without its critics it is an integral part of Scottish Island life.

Now Cal Mac's contract to run Clyde and Hebrides ferry services comes to an end next year.

The Scottish government has put the contract out to tender in what they say is in line with European rules.

The RMT union has concerns that, regardless of who wins, the new contract will see changes in employees' current terms and conditions. A reduction in staff numbers and pensions are key areas of concern.

The RMT has asked that the government guarantee in the new contract that compulsory redundancies do not happen and existing terms and conditions are continued.

This is a lucrative contract with the Scottish government providing up to £1bn in funding to help the winning company improve services and to provide the road equivalent tariff discount scheme. The Scottish government's Transport Minister Derek Mackay believes the new tender process does not amount to privatisation.
However, others are taking a different view, including the Daily Record newspaper and The Scottish Labour Party.

The paper says "What the Scottish islands cannot do without are proper ferry links to the mainland which bring not only the essentials of life, but the essentials of a working commerce and tourist economy "The privatisation of the state-owned CalMac is not just another public sector sell-off. "The tender process, the plumping up of the ferries and ports and the fabricated pensions dispute with CalMac crews all point in one direction. "Favoured status is being given to the one bidder, Serco."

Serco, an international service provider and private company, is competing against Cal Mac for the new deal. It says its customers are national and local governments as well as "leading companies".

It operates not only in the UK, but throughout Europe and in Asia and North America. Secrco say: " We don't believe that the private sector is automatically better than the state sector at delivering services, but we do believe that competition helps out the most innovative approaches." Serco isn't new to ferry operating as it already runs Northlink ferries to Orkney and Shetland.

So, what do we know about CalMac?

It has 4.7 million passengers on routes along Scotland's west coast CalMac Ferries Ltd  was created in 2006 and is a wholly owned subsidiary of David MacBrayne Ltd which in turn is wholly owned by the Scottish government.

It operates 27 Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service routes which undertakes 130,000 sailings and carries about 4.7 million passengers; 1.1 million cars and 93,000 commercial vehicles every year. The company employs 1,342 people including 200 at its headquarters in Gourock, Inverclyde. CalMac returns to the Scottish government any profit it achieves over the pre agreed profit level of £1.5m.

So when will a decision on the contract be made?

The two companies vying for the contract will submit their final tenders in December this year. The winning bidder will find out in May next year and will begin operating the ferries from 1 October 2016 for about eight years.

Scottish ministers can be sure that the Scottish public, particularly islanders, trade unions, opposition parties and the press will be watching closely. We all must be sure that when The Scottish Government make the decision as to who is awarded the contract  the needs of our island communities and the working conditions of the men and woman who provide these vital services and given paramount importance.

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